"What is the casualty count?" demanded U.S. President Wilhelm Steinitz.
"82 killed and at least 200 wounded, many seriously. The death count is guaranteed to rise," answered Homeland Security Secretary Frank Marshall. "The shrapnel wounds are really nasty. Local hospitals were overwhelmed. The stampede after the explosion made things much worse. Stadium management did the right thing by not allowing any camera footage of the carnage to be shown on the big screen because that would have accelerated the stampede, but that said, many people who saw a genuine NFL drone overhead ran for the exits. The crowd was significantly smaller than it has been in previous years due to the anthem protests, resulting in fewer casualties, but that's the only good news."
"Have we made any progress on the culprits?" queried Steinitz.
"We have plenty of leads, but no one has taken credit for it yet. It could be Islamic terrorists or it could be domestic ones," answered FBI Director Paul Morphy. "My money is on some domestic sociopath, the same type of person who shines lasers in the eyes of pilots when their aircraft is on final approach or flies drones into the path of landing aircraft. I think this was done just for kicks, which says a lot about where our country is heading."
"I agree with Paul, but this was not a random or spontaneous act. Remember that the NFL had approved the use of drones for NFL Films and for broadcasts. The perpetrator took the time to buy the exact model of drone used by the NFL," added Marshall. "When the terror drone arrived, no one noticed."
"How was the bomb constructed?" asked Steinitz.
"This was an octocopter with the addition of a larger, ninth propeller on top of the main chassis to counteract the added weight, technically making it a novemcopter. The NFL normally has a camera suspended from the chassis, but the bombers bought a camera, removed the guts, and filled it with an explosive and short wood screws. Explosives were mounted around each rotor arm in plastic pipe with short wood screws glued to the outside. The pipe was larger than the arm and was slipped over the arm. And the main chassis was packed with explosives, covered in some kind of plastic cover, and coated in glue and short wood screws," replied Morphy.
"What explosive was used?" asked Steinitz.
"Not sure yet," replied Morphy. "It could be dynamite, plastic explosive, or a homegrown concoction like ANFO. We'll know very soon from the traces."
"The sequence went like this. The drone entered the stadium during the third quarter when the home team was driving for a touchdown which would put them ahead for the first time that day. Pretty much everyone's eyes were glued to the field. Looking at the footage, they timed it perfectly, with the drone dropping almost to the heads of the fans before exploding," continued Morphy. "The camera body and chassis resulted in the largest blast with the arms sending shrapnel down in a wider pattern."
"But what has delayed the investigation is that the main chassis, with the communications equipment, was converted into shrapnel. We're still working through the evidence, but we're missing some important pieces of the drone. We believe those pieces are lying in victims, both dead and alive, with retrieval from the latter forced to wait for obvious medical and humanitarian reasons," continued Morphy. "Looking at the footage, it's obvious that the drone had thicker arms and one more propeller than the regular NFL ones, but the few people looking up at it were smiling in anticipation of having their mug spread throughout the country so they missed the clues."
"What has the NFL announced?" asked Steinitz.
"It has canceled all games for this weekend and will implement defensive measures over the next few weeks. I suggested to them to restrict all games to closed stadiums until then," replied Marshall. "The NFL has three domed and five retractable stadiums. There are some college football domed stadiums which might work, but only Carrier Dome in Syracuse has an acceptable capacity. Most baseball stadiums should work, but I think the owners would be unhappy about it due to the schedule overlap and destruction of infields. In Canada, there's Rogers Centre in Toronto, Olympic Stadium in Montreal, and BC Place in Vancouver. Montreal would love to have us because it does not have a regular football team playing there and it has the largest capacity in all of Canada. The NFL is already revamping its schedule to have some Sunday games played during the week in domes, but fans with season tickets will not be happy and groundskeepers may not have enough time to repair the damage before the next game."
"And fans will probably never tolerate having a drone fly over them again," added Marshall.
"If I may," began Technology Advisor Emmanuel Lasker. "The first problem is that we are not set-up to identify all flying objects. Drones can be large or they can be small. We need radar technology that has a real-time picture of flying objects even as small as a basketball. The second problem is tracing them back to their owner. Someone can buy a drone in a store and pay cash or buy it on the Internet with a prepaid card and have it shipped to an anonymous private box. The third problem is stopping it in flight. We have a number of technologies to capture or cripple drones in flight. A helicopter can fly above one and release a weighted net or fire a shotgun with a round containing a small net. A helicopter or truck can direct an electromagnetic pulse to it to fry its electronics, but if the helicopter is flying above the drone, that pulse will continue to the ground, possibly destroying any electronics there as well, though that's probably the least of our worries. There are handheld devices which fire a weighted net at a drone. Shotguns firing traditional pellet rounds are problematic, as many people in the Middle East have discovered when weapons are fired into the sky in celebration of something or other."
"Jamming transmitters are an option for high-value targets, though we'd still have a bomb in the air as we saw in Venezuela. Some companies have a system where a building or area is protected -- one is called SkyFence -- with drone operators losing control of their devices after entering the zone ," added Marshall. "The French air force and some European companies are training eagles to fetch drones. And before you ask, I have no idea how long it takes to train an eagle. But I'll find out later today."
"I'd like to add to that the fact that our radar systems were designed to track relatively large objects flying above the ground and structures. They were not designed to track small objects flying between buildings," said FAA Administrator Jose Raul Capablanca.
"So how do we prevent another one?" asked Steinitz.
"Since we cannot track all drones, we're stuck for now. We need Congress to allocate money for better tracking technology. And it should be obvious that this problem is not restricted to the NFL. Many cities have baseball and/or soccer stadiums. Colleges and universities have outdoor stadiums. Cities have outdoor festivals during the summer months. Not to mention high school sports," answered Capablanca. "We need to collate a list of all available helicopters and start practicing the firing of shotguns with net-rounds. It won't be elegant, but it might be the only short-term solution."
"And we need to worry about airports. Flying an explosives-filled drone into the path of a landing aircraft would likely take it down similar to how the Russians took MH17 down over Ukraine," added Capablanca.
"We need to start discussions on implementing a registration scheme where businesses are required to verify a person's identity before selling a drone, whether from a brick-and-mortar retail store or online," added Morphy. "We need to have addresses for buyers so we can track them. We should ban the online sale of drones."
The sound of the doorknob turning caused some of the attendees to turn to the source of the noise.
"You really must see this now," interrupted National Security Advisor Howard Staunton as he opened the door and walked into the conference room while rubbing his nose with his left hand and holding a laptop with his right.
"I tried to warn him, but ... he walked into the mirror again!" announced the president's secretary.
That's all right, Alice, we know how he is," answered Steinitz. "Nice of you to join us, Howard."
Staunton placed the laptop directly in front of Steinitz. He pressed the space bar, awakening the Linux operating system. The others walked behind Steinitz to see what the laptop had to offer.
"Recognize this?" asked Staunton.
"That looks like a Chinese Long March missile, its latest with solid fuel propellant. But where was the photo taken? The blackish hills look familiar," pondered Morphy.
"Oh, you are not serious!" declared Steinitz incredulously.
"That's right, this video is from the Moon," announced Staunton. "We hacked into their video feed."
"China has a Long March missile on the moon?" asked Marshall.
"Put cats in the coffee and mice in the tea," mulled Capablanca. "My wife works for NASA. She told me that China has made a large number of trips to the Moon without fanfare. She always thought it was about mining."
"Wasn't the official line from China that it was simply attempting to gain the same technological advantage that the U.S. gained during its space missions: Velcro, Tang, miniaturized electronics, and all that?" asked Lasker
"It was always about mining. It is no secret China was mining for helium-3 for use in nuclear fusion, as it is much more common on the Moon due to the solar wind depositing it there. It wants to be the sole source for helium-3," declared Staunton. "Remember when China stopped supplying rare earths, used in motors, green energy, and all of our weapon systems, first to Japan and then to the West in general? It appears China is doing it again."
Steinitz gave him an inquisitive look. "Did China get the missile there in pieces?" he asked Staunton.
"After enough moves, a pawn becomes a queen," replied Staunton. "China has been playing a passive-aggressive game for decades, telling the West that it wanted to be a partner with the West when in fact it wanted nothing of the kind. Remember the book by the former high-ranking government official, The Hundred-Year Marathon? China's goal has always been to replace the U.S. as the major superpower, though it has no intentions of being a benevolent one."
"And there's more. Unless you speak Mandarin you will just have to take my word for it, but here is the official announcement that just aired. China announced that it now has a space defense identification zone surrounding the entire Moon. Unlike the air defense identification zone it declared in the East China Sea, it is not asking for flight itineraries in advance. It declared that it now controls the entire Moon and will not brook any interference in territory it has owned for thousands of years," continued Staunton.
"The wasp in a wig," reflected Capablanca.
"Early Chinese astronomers Ruan Xiaoxu, Shi Shen, and Gan De were mentioned as having discovered the Moon starting in the 5th Century BC, giving China the oldest claim on it," continued Staunton.
"Sure, like the participants in the Trojan War around 1200 BC never looked up in the sky," sarcastically remarked Morphy.
"Homer, who lived around 400 years after the sack of Troy, mentioned the Sun-god Helios in the very beginning of the Odyssey. I doubt if he only saw the Sun in the sky," added Lasker.
"The Chinese media is warning the U.S. to not repeat so-called erroneous remarks regarding its new space zone, in other words, we are just supposed to accept it as established fact," continued Staunton.
"China said the exact same thing when it created the South China Sea and East China Sea exclusion zones," added Marshall.
"Your red majesty shouldn't purr so loud," muttered Lasker.
"Do we have any spacecraft to counterattack, to check China like we did by sending B-52 bombers into its East China Sea air zone?" asked Steinitz. "Or even as a gambit to see if China is bluffing?"
"You might as well try to catch a Bandersnatch," answered Staunton. "All we have are rockets sufficiently powerful to put a satellite into Earth orbit. The extra stages needed for travel to the Moon are not even designed yet. We allowed the shuttle to retire without replacing it, but it did not have the legs to travel to the Moon anyway. We had those insane conversations regarding travel to Mars, even though the trip each way would take 1-2 years -- the Religious Right never did permit a discussion regarding sex in space -- and NASA was pretty much allowed to wither on the vine. The Russians might be able to cobble a spacecraft together, but neither of us has devised a robust anti-missile system for this scenario -- and we're not exactly on speaking terms with the Russians after their capers in Eastern Europe and the implosion of the Middle East."
"What about the Outer Space Treaty of 1967? Doesn't that require China to allow all signatories to freely visit the Moon and all installations on it?" asked Steinitz.
"It's very provoking, but did Japan and China have the right to declare large parts of the ocean in East Asia to be subject to their whims with respect to their air zones? I suspect China will invoke Article XII -- 'Such representatives shall give reasonable advance notice of a projected visit, in order that appropriate consultations may be held and that maximum precautions may be taken to assure safety and to avoid interference with normal operations in the facility to be visited' -- as its justification," retorted Staunton.
"All the king's horses and all the king's men," muttered Marshall.
"Red rook deflects white bishop," ruminated Lasker.
"What was it Jim Lovell said after the explosion of the oxygen tank on Apollo 13?" pondered Morphy.
"We've just lost the Moon!" answered Steinitz.
© Copyright Pete Prunskunas, 2015-2018. All rights reserved
"I was out of town for the last week. How did it happen?" asked Edgar Cooping.
"Harry was shot," began Sonia Cthulhu sadly.
"By an idiot teenybopper with a plastic gun he built using a 3-D printer!" angrily added her husband, H.P. Cthulhu.
"They had to operate immediately. Soon after the first operation, the doctors told us he had contracted gram-negative bacteria. They weren't sure if he contracted it from a contaminated bullet or in the hospital. I thought it would be quickly cured by antibiotics," continued Sonia.
"As soon as I heard it was gram-negative bacteria, I knew it was trouble. We've abused antibiotics so much, especially in farm animals, that some gram-negative bacteria cannot be killed by current antibiotics," interjected H.P. "The doctors told me that the reason we do not have any more super-drugs is because the pharmaceutical companies do not make nearly as much money on them as they do with cholesterol, erectile-dysfunction, and other drugs which patients take on an ongoing basis. Antibiotics are only used for ten days or so, so the profit margin is much lower."
"And then Harry developed sepsis," continued Sonia.
"I always thought it was called septicemia," added H.P.
"Which started shutting down his internal organs. Oh, his poor little legs: they were all black, dark red, and blue -- and swollen. We were here when he died this morning. Our little Houdini has performed his last trick," concluded Sonia.
Sonia went partially limp for a few seconds, but both H.P and Edgar took hold of her arms and walked her to a chair.
"Have you thought about the arrangements?" asked Virginia Cooping, Edgar's wife.
"No, not a bit. Up until this morning I would have wagered everything I own that antibiotics would save the day. What are we returning to, the Dark Ages, when bacteria killed millions?" pondered H.P.
"What happened to the boy who shot Harry?" asked Edgar.
"It's not the justice I would have chosen, but the first shot he fired went into our dear Harry. But the second shot blew up the gun, shredding his hand and tearing into his eyes and face, blinding him," said H.P as he grimly smiled.
"What did he shoot Harry for?" asked Virginia.
Sonia sobbed a little. "The junior thug thought Harry was gay. But he wasn't! Remember not that long ago he would stuff a towel into the back of his waistband, pretending it was his tail? He was always being creative."
"I asked him point-blank one day if he was gay, followed by our assurances that it was okay if he was. He just laughed and said he liked to try different things," continued H.P. " I think he would have been a musician or a writer."
"Remember when the Williams tried to coerce us into changing his gender, even going so far as to accuse us of child abuse? I got really angry with them," asked Sonia.
"Yeah, they wanted us to start hormone treatments. No way was I going to do that for a growing child. I told them that Harry could choose any path in life he wanted, but his body was going to finish growing first," answered H.P. "I mean, there are good reasons why we have pediatricians and hospitals dedicated to children's needs. Their bodies are entirely different. Hormone treatments for children would be tantamount to experimentation."
"Did you drive here?" asked Edgar, changing the subject.
"No, we took a drone taxi," replied H.P.
"Yeah, us too. How about we share one and get you two home so you can think about what you want to do?" offered Edgar.
"That's probably a good idea," answered H.P. as he looked at his pale wife.
Edgar took out his smartphone and started the drone taxi app, entering the number of passengers and other relevant data. He didn't need to enter a credit card or other form of payment because his phone was his financial manager, as it was for most people.
"Okay, it's all set. It should be waiting for us when we get downstairs," offered Edgar.
They all walked downstairs to the main entrance. Waiting outside was their drone taxi, essentially a box with windows on three sides, a door on one side, and a propeller on each of the four top corners to supply lift. Like all drones, there was no driver. This generation was the last to have a human operating it via remote control, as all newer ones were automated.
All four entered the taxi and it immediately took off.
"Did you hear about the crash between taxi and delivery vehicle drones?" asked H.P. softly so as to not disturb his wife.
"Yeah, a BigWoman automated delivery vehicle left its package on someone's doorstep and then took off vertically right into the bottom of an automated taxi. Both vehicles crashed hard and everyone in the taxi and a pedestrian walking beneath it died. BigWoman's CEO Oligarch Devoid Ofpity is using the usual libertarian ploy that the delivery vehicle division is based in India and therefore immune to domestic lawsuits," answered Edgar.
"And did you hear about the thefts of homes? Not items from homes, entire homes! Authorities aren't sharing the particulars, but it appears that some people have just vanished, with their homes and bank accounts being stolen. Authorities believe that once the homes are stolen, the thieves sell them for less than market value to the people who post those "I buy houses" signs on street signs. Those secondary buyers always get stuck with the aftermath, losing their entire investment, so greedy they acquiesce to the thieves' requirement of no title insurance and a fast closing. The money is wired to an intermediary bank in the U.S. and then to a bank in Russia where clawbacks are impossible. Some computer security professionals believe that the Russian government has made a deal with the cyber-thieves, called Partnerkas. As long as they do not steal from Russian interests, they will not be bothered and might even be assisted if it coincides with current government policy," continued H.P.
"Okay, here we are," announced Edgar.
"Sonia, are you okay now? Do you want some help getting in?" asked Virginia.
"I'm okay now. I just want to lie down for a few minutes," answered Sonia.
"If you guys need anything, give us a call, okay?" added Edgar.
"Okay, thanks," answered H.P. as he and Sonia exited the taxi. After they had walked twelve feet from the vehicle, it took off again with the Coopings.
Virginia took out her smartphone and checked her email. "Look, I have an email, 'Demon with a glass penis,' from FaceResale."
"Maybe it's not a good idea to click on that one," proposed Edgar.
"Oh my god, you're so paranoid! Wait, it's telling me I need to verify security measures for FaceResale. Let's see, date of birth, SSN, address, oh, it wants to add retina scanning to my account just like we have at home," she declared breathlessly.
"Remember, we agreed that the retina scan would only be used for our townhome -- nowhere else?" he chided.
"Oh my god, you're so paranoid! This generation of the gspotPhone has a camera which can also obtain high-quality close-up images. I'll just hold it in front of my eye. There! All done!" she continued.
"See, we made it home without any incident!" she declared.
They exited the drone taxi. When they had moved twelve feet away from it, it took off and flew to its next destination. They walked to the doorway of their townhome.
She placed her chin in the chin-rest of their security system and allowed the retina scanner to map her eyeball. The status light remained red. She repeated the process, but the light remained red.
"What's going on here?" she demanded.
"Let me try it," he offered.
He placed his chin in the chin-rest and allowed the retina scanner to map his eyeball. The status light changed from red to green. As he pushed the door open, the light immediately changed back to red.
"It's never done that before," he declared.
As soon as they closed the door, she checked her phone for the latest email. "Look, I have an email for a party!"
He looked at the graphic on her phone. "Swing until dawn!" was written under a stylized depiction of a man and a woman dancing a tango.
"It starts at 8:00 PM. And it's free to members of the homeowner's association. Sounds like it was designed for us!" she declared.
* * * * *
At 7:00 PM the Coopings' wall-television came on. The stylized dancing depiction from the email was on the screen. An announcer's voice was explaining how much fun the event would be and that they needed to get moving now or they would miss it.
"That sounds just like Ilya Kurchatov!" announced Virginia.
"That is a character on a television program as played by a British actor," explained Edgar.
"Whatever! Sounds Russian to me," she countered. "Let's go!"
They gathered their phones, wallets, and other essential belongings and walked out the door. As soon as the door closed behind them, the television switched off.
He called for a drone taxi using his phone. Almost immediately one arrived and landed.
"That's the fastest taxi service I have ever seen!" he declared.
They got in and the taxi flew toward the coast. As it started to land, she looked at her husband and said, "I always wondered what the multistory barge on the pier was. Party town!"
They exited the taxi. If they had turned to watch it, they would have seen it lurch from side-to-side, with the suspension being dropped first on one side and then the other, as if it was a drunken dancer. It did not fly away until the two had walked to the entrance of the barge
At the barge, they saw a large video display with the same stylized dancing depiction they saw before. As they walked towards it, it went blank and then displayed "Your room number is 2640 Grand Concourse."
They walked into the hallway and saw that "Grand Concourse" was the pretentious name for a wide hallway running the length of the barge. There was no one to be seen in the hallway.
He looked at her and said, "Let's get out of here. This place is a morgue."
"Let's at least look at the room," she countered.
They walked down the hallway to #2640.
"I just realized we have no room key," he said.
"A chin rest ... maybe," she wondered. She placed her chin on the chin rest and allowed the retina scanner to map her eyeball. The room door opened.
I'm not sure whether I should be impressed or worried," he admitted.
They walked into the room. The door shut behind them.
"Looks like standard Las Vegas fare: king-size bed, decent bathroom, and not much else. Let's go," he repeated. He tried to open the door, but the electronic lock would not unlock the door. "What's up with this?" he asked.
"We are having some technical problems with the door locks. We expect to have the problem resolved shortly. Thank you for your patience," a disembodied voice proclaimed.
"That sounds just like the Russian back home!" she declared.
"I think you're right, it does! Now what do we do?" he queried.
"Well, you always say I'm only good for one thing!" she announced as she removed her shirt.
* * * * *
They were getting dressed after killing time in the time-honored tradition of men and women everywhere. A four-note chime sounded and then the disembodied voice proclaimed: "Our technical problem has been solved. The doors are working again. 'Swing until dawn' will now commence."
They walked back toward the main entrance until they heard some music. It sounded unfamiliar, like Eastern European polkas mixed with new-age rhythms. The music was coming from a room with that now familiar stylized dancing depiction being displayed on video monitors on both sides of the doors. They walked inside.
As they walked in with him on the left and her on the right, they could see no one at all. A muffled thudding noise sounded from their left. They both turned to look at what caused the noise. He heard a strange swishing / chopping noise behind him and turned around quickly. As he turned, he saw Virginia's arms flying in the air -- with each arm in three pieces -- and blood spraying everywhere. As his mouth opened in horror, he heard her starting to scream. Then for the first time he noticed the two muscular men swinging swords just a little beefier than Japanese samurai ones seen in American movies. Both men were dressed in colors exactly matching those of the walls, making them difficult to see.
Just as her scream became ear-shattering, the man on the left lifted his blade and swung it at her neck, severing her head in one motion. Her head moved to the side of the rest of her body and quickly fell to the ground.
As her now-silenced scream echoed throughout the room, he moved one foot in front of the other in an attempt to fight the two men, but he found his balance strangely affected. He looked down and saw that his arms had been severed the same as Virginia. Two more men had been standing behind him in wait.
He felt vertigo as he had never felt it before and realized that his head was now moving to the side of his now headless torso.
The very last experience in his life was hearing the chimes calling for the next couple.
© Copyright Pete Prunskunas, 2015-2018. All rights reserved.
"Take a gander at that," announced Pandora, pointing toward the vehicle the size of a motor coach. "A brand new Space Peregrine. My mother told me that only certain people are allowed to use spacecraft. She works for NASA, so she's allowed to use one."
"Wow, I read about it, but this is the first one I've seen!" declared Phoebe.
"It's a lot boxier than I imagined," added Helene.
"Aerodynamics are not important in space," chided Phoebe. "But it's actually a lot sleeker than you think. The shape of the rear is a boat-tail to reduce drag when going through the atmosphere. And the front is deceptively tapered."
"But what if we meet some cute guys while tooling around in space?" pondered Helene. "And there's no windows in the rear! How do we back-up?"
"Back-up? You did not pay attention in physics class. Things just keep moving in space until thrust equal to the vehicle's energy is applied in the reverse direction," explained Phoebe.
"My busy social schedule allows no time for science," said Helene. "And speaking of thrusting, let me tell you about my date with Jerry last night. He really appreciated the shape of my rear."
"Later, Helene," interrupted Pandora. "We need to get going because my mother only went to Germany for the day. She'll be back later tonight."
"There are only a few places in orbit where spacecraft can go through because of the rubbish left from the Chinese anti-satellite tests," reminded Phoebe.
"I had Chinese last night with Jerry," started Helene. "Before the thrusting began, I mean."
"I'm sure you can figure out how to fly through the orbital cloud of debris caused by, what was it called?" queried Pandora while ignoring Helene.
"Kessler syndrome," answered Phoebe.
"But Casper is a friendly ghost," pleaded Helene.
"Get in, you two," commanded Pandora as she opened the door to the space cruiser.
"Don Kessler of NASA theorized that a collision between two large objects in orbit would cause a chain reaction of other objects in orbit, eventually resulting in orbital space being filled with space junk. It would be almost impossible to put any satellite into orbit at that point," explained Phoebe as she sat in the co-pilot's seat and investigated the glass cockpit of the vehicle. "Space has been getting filled with junk ever since Sputnik, with quite a few boosters exploding in orbit, but there were three events which created enormous amounts of debris. The first was in 2007 when the Chinese intentionally destroyed a weather satellite in low earth orbit. The second was in 2009 when Russian Kosmos and U.S. Iridium communications satellites collided. But the third was the worst of all, in 2018, when China executed a MIRV anti-satellite test."
"Who is Merv?" interrupted Helene. "Is he cute?"
"Helene, sit down and put your straps on," ordered Pandora. All three teenagers fastened their multi-point restraints.
Pandora entered the coordinates of their destination and the spacecraft started to rise.
"MIRV is multiple warheads on one missile. I really should not use that term because it is used in the context of attacks against ground targets, with the missiles launching, leaving the atmosphere, and then re-entering, but this was a missile carrying multiple warheads to attack multiple satellites. Relations had become frosty between China and the U.S. and China wanted to show us just what it could do," answered Phoebe.
Phoebe entered some data and punched some buttons on the instrument panel, with the vehicle tilting back, pointing its front end skyward, and accelerating. "We are connecting to the Space Fence now, which will allow us to travel through an area devoid of space junk," continued Phoebe.
"Space Fence? Does it ever need painting?" asked Helene.
"The Space Fence is the Air Force's system for keeping track of all objects near Earth. It's actually in its third generation," continued Phoebe.
"Helene, the Space Fence is painted by the team of Buck Rogers and Huck Finn," joked Pandora.
"I have not dated those guys yet," sheepishly admitted Helene.
"Space Fence 1.0, the Air Force Space Surveillance System, originally recorded the location of all objects from the ground, but that only allowed for detection of basketball-sized objects. That wasn't good enough. Space Fence 2.0 allowed for the tracking of objects as small as a softball -- the twelve-inch kind, not the sixteen-inch kind. But that wasn't good enough because after the Chinese MIRV disaster in 2018, there were many objects smaller than a softball which could still destroy a spacecraft. Space Fence 3.0 tracks every particle down to one millimeter," continued Phoebe.
"That's not done from the ground, right?" asked Pandora.
"No, ground-based radars could never provide the resolution needed to detect one millimeter objects, not through the atmosphere. The radar station needs to be in space," answered Phoebe.
"Isn't Space Fence a stupid name for something that detects junk? Shouldn't it be space junk detector or something like that?" asked Helene.
"A+ for you, Helene. Yes, the name is not appropriate," answered Phoebe.
"Another possibility is that it refers to a pawn shop that often deals with stolen items. Just imagine you're on Mars and your spacecraft breaks down. You need money to fix it so you pawn your jewelry," joked Pandora.
"Sell my jewelry?" incredulously wondered Helene.
"But orbital space was clogged with junk, so how did they get a satellite past all of that?" asked Pandora.
"Yeah, that's a long story in itself. They used Space Fence 2.0 to calculate the most open window and launched into it. But they guessed wrong and that satellite was utterly destroyed by particles smaller than a softball. The world had just about given up when the CEO of SpaceMeh, Dr. Edward Morbius, volunteered one of his company's rockets for the second launch," explained Phoebe.
"Doctor who?" asked Helene.
"He gambled millions of dollars that this second satellite wouldn't suffer the same fate. That satellite made it into orbit. Then with that bootstrap, we were able to place a few more satellites into orbit," continued Phoebe, ignoring Helene. "We're on autopilot to make it through the space junk. No human pilot could react as fast as is needed to dodge the orbital trash."
"Is there any cool junk? Can we stop and take souvenirs?" asked Helene.
"Helene, darling, the space shuttle flew at 17,500 miles per hour and space junk flies at similar speeds. Objects would be flying past us so fast that we would never be able to distinguish between them, except for large pieces which would appear just before they smashed into us," answered Pandora.
"Well, I'm just glad we don't have to wear space diapers. That would be so gross!" exclaimed Helene. "Not to mention making for an unflattering figure!"
"Look over there! We're so lucky to see it! There's a space cleaner, collecting space junk. Those autonomous robot vehicles have been working like that for years and they'll continue to do so for a long time," declared Phoebe. "They've got nuclear engines, just like the Space Fence satellites, so they have essentially unlimited fuel to move out of the path of faster debris. They collect a pile of trash, cobble it together, and place a small thruster on it to cause it to reenter and burn up."
"Okay, we're through the space junk. Now we can move into an assigned Alcofrisbas lane and start moving fast," said Phoebe. "See how the autopilot is causing us to pitch over, aiming us to the lane entrance?"
"That's another part I don't understand. How are there lanes in space?" queried Pandora. "And who is Alcofrisbas?"
"Holy cow, we're accelerating so fast my hair's on fire!" joked Helene.
"With all the hair spray you use, it's a wonder you don't spontaneously combust," retorted Pandora.
"Woo-hoo, look at the lights racing past!" exclaimed Helene.
"Remember those old Star Trek shows? The part about warp drive was a crock. Traveling faster than light is impossible. But even worse is what would happen if we would just travel at the speed of light without looking ahead somehow. Eventually we'd run into an obstacle, perhaps even a comet, at which point we and our spacecraft would be smashed to pieces," explained Phoebe.
"Okay, here's the problem in a nutshell. You're traveling at the speed of light. You have radar to detect objects ahead of you. Radar, like all radio waves, travels at the speed of light. Given that the speed of light is the maximum speed anything can travel, your radar does not even travel ahead of you, preventing it from detecting anything," continued Phoebe.
"But even if radio waves did travel ahead at its usual pace compared to the spacecraft, giving it a speed of twice the speed of light, radar waves would return to you at exactly the same time you hit the object in your way," said Phoebe.
"So, the postman always rings twice, but the cheating wife makes it to the door exactly when the bell rings for the second time?" pondered Helene.
Pandora looked at Helene. "What?"
"So the U.S., Canada, Europe, South Korea, Japan, and Australia decided on a scheme to create secure lanes in space. I don't know the exact specifics so don't hammer me on them -- my memory is good, but I don't have total recall -- but there are autonomous nuclear-powered vehicles called lane observers which travel up and down the lanes, looking for objects of any kind which have a trajectory leading them through the lane. These vehicles look all around the lane, not just down it, and estimate when an object would enter the lane," explained Phoebe.
"I expect John will be hammering me tonight," mused Helene. "A close encounter of the lewd kind."
"Also, there are autonomous lane beacons at specific intervals which broadcast a go/no-go signal to warn spacecraft if the lane will soon have dangerous bodies flying through it. And the default is for spacecraft to assume no-go if there is no signal, so even if a beacon has trouble, the worst that happens is that travelers are delayed," continued Phoebe. "The observers communicate with beacons on a regular schedule, with the default being that if a beacon does not hear from an observer, the beacon will start transmitting a no-go signal. The old Internet scam of opting in by default was not repeated in space."
"So are spacecraft always listening for beacons?" asked Pandora.
"Yes, even while traveling at 80% of the speed of light, though it takes them a long distance to stop after receiving a no-go signal," answered Phoebe. "And Alcofrisbas was a French astronomer and magician."
"Isn't it problematic for space vehicles to receive radio signals when they're going 80% of the speed of light? I mean, the radio signals are only going 25% faster," inquired Pandora.
"Very true, and that's why there are many beacons, with the spacecraft using Doppler shift to determine which signal is the one to use for the section just ahead," replied Phoebe. "Spacecraft are listening to all beacons simultaneously so they will usually know of a potential collision long before they reach that section."
"Okay, here we are at the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter," said Phoebe as the vehicle slowed down dramatically.
"There's no lane through it?" asked Helene.
"No, the belt is too unpredictable for fast speeds. Traveling at low speeds is okay, but it was decided to force spacecraft to use their own radar when traveling through the belt," answered Phoebe.
"How far out do the lanes extend?" asked Pandora.
"They were just completed to Saturn's orbit. After that is Uranus, Neptune, and the Kuiper belt which will require another non-automatic stretch. But given the distances involved, it will be a while before the lanes are extended further," answered Phoebe. "Okay, we're out of the asteroid belt. Back to fast autopilot," announced Phoebe.
"Why are we only traveling at 80% of the speed of light?" asked Pandora as the vehicle started traveling much faster.
"Mama, let your baby girls grow up to be space cowgirls," sang Helene.
"Remember the famous astronaut Frank Poole?" asked Phoebe.
"He disappeared without a trace," replied Helene. "Too bad, he was cute for an older guy. I would have done him."
"That's the official story. Popular Space Travel magazine reported that he was the test pilot on a flight traveling at 99% of the speed of light, but when he returned he was physically a mess, looking something like the cheesy aliens on Twilight Zone reruns. Some people theorize that cargo ages differentially at the speed of light, in other words, people's insides age differently than their skin and extremities. That's why we are limited to 80%," replied Phoebe. "Saturn lies between 69 and 84 light-minutes from Earth, depending upon its position in its orbit, but our trip will require between 85 and 105 minutes, not including the time we spent getting to Earth orbit."
"You never finished your story about China and its multiple warheads," said Helene.
"Oh, yeah, China tested its anti-satellite warhead by shooting down ten targets simultaneously. The rest of the world did not know about it in advance. It said later that it aimed at ten spent boosters and dead satellites, which was bad enough because they were still in low Earth orbit. Shattering them would have created millions of new particles of space junk. All ten warheads started heading toward active satellites, actually ten KH-12 spy satellites, which were basically Hubble Space Telescopes pointing in the opposite direction. All ten satellites were smashed into so many pieces that low Earth orbit was ruined. The space station at that time was shredded, adding a great deal of debris to the junk already in orbit," explained Phoebe. "We still don't know if China understood the aftermath of its actions."
"China was banned from space, right?" asked Pandora.
"Not per se, especially considering that we had no way to stop them from launching rockets," answered Phoebe. "The U.S. stopped supplying China with any information regarding space junk. China kept trying to replace its satellites destroyed by its catastrophe, but every time it did the satellite was destroyed."
"Helene, for years there was no GPS because the satellites were destroyed. Satellite telephones became doorstops," said Phoebe.
"No satellite phones?" said Helene with a shudder. "Oh, the horror!"
"I heard that we destroyed any Chinese satellites which made it into orbit," offered Pandora.
"That's what Popular Space Travel magazine reported, that after Space Fence 3.0 was operational, we inserted killer satellites into orbit. Any Chinese spacecraft entering orbit was destroyed by shooting marble-sized steel balls at it, destroying it but also adding to the space junk. Eventually China gave up," explained Phoebe.
"I was watching a rerun of the original Star Trek while waiting for Jerry to leave the bathroom. How come we don't have transporters?" asked Helene.
"Wow, that's a long story all by itself," responded Phoebe. "The first problem is energy, as it takes an enormous amount to convert cells into a transportable form."
"Do you remember what form of radio waves was used in the tests?" asked Pandora. "Lasers, microwaves?"
"Microwaves! Wouldn't the transported person be burnt to a crisp?" pondered Helene.
"I don't remember what was used," replied Phoebe, ignoring Helene. "A related problem was the bandwidth of the transmission medium, given the complexity of a human body, not to mention memories."
"The first test subjects were insects, which appeared to transport okay, but they all arrived dead," continued Phoebe. "Instead of understanding why the insects arrived dead, they used a small animal, a guinea pig, in a second round of tests."
"I saw the video of that," interjected Pandora. "The guinea pig screamed the entire time it was being disassembled. I had nightmares for days."
"Yeah, that was show-stopper #1. If it could not be done in less than one second, the pain would kill the subject," continued Phoebe.
"I saw an old movie, The Fly, a few weeks ago on a date. A fly entered the transporter room just as the process started, with the guy coming out the other end part-fly, part-human," added Helene. "Eww!"
"That was show-stopper #2. It's not just external insects. Imagine if the subject had parasites, maybe a tapeworm," started Phoebe.
Helene made a face.
"The tapeworm would end up being permanently mixed with the subject. Scientists theorized that they could separate parasites via software after disassembly, but it's a non-trivial problem, continued Phoebe. "The system would need a complete list of parasites, and given that we discover new organisms all the time, some people would be permanently damaged."
"Wouldn't the subjects have to be naked?" asked Pandora.
"Yes, both to prevent the clothes from delaying disassembly and to not have to separate them from the body via software similar to the parasite problem," answered Phoebe.
"Naked! Now we're getting somewhere! Could two people be transported together while playing the two-backed beast?" asked Helene. "I'll volunteer!"
"Not a chance," replied Phoebe. "Separating the two would really complicate the process. Contrary to Star Trek, all disassembly would be done individually."
"There were other problems, for example, dealing with interference of the transmission medium, with sunspots topping the list, but show-stopper #3 was the one that killed any hope of transporters," began Phoebe. "Someone finally realized that the subject would die, with a clone being created at the destination."
"Those aren't your memories; they're somebody else's," plaintively declared Helene.
"Okay, this is the tricky part. We've reached the end of the lane, so we're slowing down and exiting the lane. We'll be doing a lot of manual driving now," said Phoebe as she punched a few buttons. "I'll put us directly over the rings, staying parallel to them, echoing their orbital position."
"Holy cow, look at that! Look at those rings!" declared Helene as she unfastened her restraints and moved to the front windows, followed by the other two.
"That is the most stupendous thing I have ever seen, by far," added Pandora.
"There are hundreds, no, thousands of individual rings! I always thought there was only one big ring," said Helene. "And the material in the rings is not consistently sized. Look at the lumps in the rings."
"The large particles are called moonlets. Too small to be moons, but too large to be just particles in the overall ring," answered Phoebe.
"Do you know how the rings formed?" asked Pandora.
"The current theory is that a moon became trapped at the Roche radius, with that being the sweet spot where a body will disintegrate due to the mother body's tidal forces exceeding the forces keeping the kid together. Looking at the many moonlets, this process must be a work in progress," answered Phoebe.
"Let me sit there, okay?" demanded Helene as she pushed the smaller Phoebe into another seat.
"I promised Jerry a photo of my snatch with Saturn's rings in the background, matching them with the rings I have in my piercings. Here, hold my phone for a minute," said Helene as she handed it to Pandora and started pulling her trousers down. "Barbarella 2.0, don't ya know?"
"Geez, Helene, keep your clothes on!" said Pandora as she struggled with Helene to prevent her from taking her pants off.
"Here, hold this," Helene said to Phoebe as she handed her the phone.
"You should take a photo of your kitty and send it to your boyfriend Robby," retorted Helene as she fought with Pandora. "Then he could brag to his friends, 'I have a photo of Pandora's box!'"
"Watch it you two! Helene, your butt is too close to the controls! Get away from the instrument panel now!" commanded Phoebe.
"What's going on?" cried Helene as she rose to the roof as the vehicle dove down to the rings.
"Get away from the panel!" shrieked Phoebe as she sat down, fastened her restraints, and began entering the data to cause the vehicle to reverse its drop.
"It's too late, isn't it?" asked Pandora as she sat down beside Phoebe and fastened her restraints.
"I think I can prevent us from colliding with any of the moonlets, but we are going to travel through the surface of the rings!" exclaimed Phoebe.
"No, no, no!" bellowed Phoebe as the vehicle first dove below the plane of the rings, then rose, only to have a moonlet appear directly in front of them.
"Can you stop our forward momentum?" desperately pleaded Pandora.
"I think so, but Newton is going to have the last laugh," she answered as the vehicle leveled out while firing its forward thrusters full-blast.
"We're not going to hit that moonlet, are we?" asked Helene, crying.
"No, just barely. Let me bring us up a little and survey the damage," replied Phoebe as she punched a few buttons.
"I can see lots of dents and gouges on the outside where little rocks hit us," said Helene.
"Oh, no! That's what you meant with your reference to Newton. Our forward thrusters not only spread the dust and particles around, they shoved that moonlet forward, accelerating it, causing it to rip through the rings like a bowling ball through pins," exclaimed Pandora.
"That might not be the worst of it. Look ahead of it, down the rings. See that other moonlet? They're going to collide at an angle like three-dimensional billiard balls," answered Phoebe. "We really messed up the rings."
"I'm getting us out of here, back to the lane!" said Pandora as she set the coordinates on the panel.
"I don't see any other spacecraft around, so maybe no one will know we did it," whimpered Helene as she grabbed her seat, sat down, and fastened her restraints.
"Except that traffic is sparse out here and registration information is probably recorded for each vehicle traveling in the lane," answered Phoebe.
"What's that noise?" asked Helene.
"It's a space siren!" answered Phoebe. "There's no air in space, so sound cannot travel through it. The siren is being played on our sound system."
"A Gort planetary trooper is right behind us!" shouted Helene as she looked at the monitors showing the video from the rear cameras.
"Return to the entrance to the Alcofrisbas lane at low speed, stop, and prepare to be teleboarded!" demanded the disembodied, electronic voice of the trooper.
"I'll probably be late for my date with John," whined Helene.
"My mother is going to kill me!" shrieked Pandora.
© Copyright Pete Prunskunas, 2015-2018. All rights reserved.